International Fellowship of Christians and Jews
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History of IsraelOttoman Empire

The rule of the Ottoman Empire in the Holy Land, which began in the early 16th century following their defeat of the Mamluks, lasted until 1922 (the end of World World I) after which Great Britain gained control of Palestine.

During the 8th and 9th centuries, Turkish tribes were pushed out of their lands in Central Asia by the invading Mongols. They converted to Islam and began traveling westward. The Seljuk tribe rose to power, but often conflicted with the other, nomadic Turkish tribes. The Seljuks sent one of these tribes to Anatolia, in the Byzantine Empire, and from this tribe arose the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Turks were originally centered in modern-day Turkey, but soon began to spread out into Europe and the Middle East, conquering lands. They were tremendous fighters and the already weakened Byzantine Empire was on the verge of collapse. Finally, in 1453, they destroyed Constantinople, and with it, the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul.

The Ottoman Empire faced internal problems, since their reign lacked organization and there were frequent disputes regarding succession. However, they were able to amass great wealth by controlling the main trade routes and charging for access. They were overall a tolerant people, allowing religious groups to keep their laws and traditions without interfering. The Ottomans are known for their splendid architecture. They also prized intellect, and many works on topics such as math and astronomy were published during this time.

During Ottoman rule, the religious minorities in Israel—Jews and Christians—lived through both periods of prosperity, and of persecution.

The Jewish population thrived during the first part of Ottoman rule. Jews were allowed to practice their religion, and the city of Safed (Tsfat), in the Galilee, saw a rebirth of Jewish life. The Holy Land became a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution in Crusader Europe, and for the most part, the sultans tolerated, often openly embracing, the Jews.

In the mid-16th century, Kabbalah was studied intently, and the Oral Law was codified in the Shulkhan Arukh. From the institutions of learning in Safed, these texts were dispersed to Jews living in the Diaspora. However, with the decline and decentralization of Ottoman rule, the lives of the Jews declined as well. Much of the land was in the hands of absentee landlords, and fell into disrepair. Taxes were crippling to the average farmer and landowner, and arable land became victim to swamps and desert.

The decline continued until Western interest in Israel began in the 19th century, and then Jewish life began to flourish again. The last two decades of Ottoman rule witnessed the first waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel, emigrating mainly from Russia, who came to build a better life for themselves and fulfill their dreams of living in the Holy Land.

The Hurva is an ancient synagogue in the old City of Jerusalem, in what is now called the Jewish Quarter. The history of the Hurva is inextricably linked to the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The Hurva (literally: The Ruins) gained prominence during Ottoman rule, as a group of Jews arrived from Poland in 1700 and attempted to rebuild the synagogue. However, they ran into many problems with taxes and fees owed to the Ottoman pashas; eventually, unable to repay their debt, the building was set on fire and the Jewish community exiled.

After nearly two centuries of attempts by Jewish groups to rebuild the synagogue, permission was finally granted, money raised, and, in 1864 the synagogue was rebuilt and dedicated. Sadly, it was destroyed again during the 1948 war, but is in the process of being, once again, reconstructed, this time by the Israeli government.

One particular group of Christians, the Armenians, grew in numbers, power, and prosperity during Ottoman rule, and gained control over their own quarter in Jerusalem. In the late 17th century, Armenians were the second largest Christian community in the city, comprising over 20% of the Christian population in Jerusalem. However, over the next two hundred years, there were many incidents of massacres instigated by the Ottoman rulers against the Armenians, all over the Ottoman Empire. Toward the end of World War I, the Ottoman war minister, out of fear the Armenians would side with the Russians, began a systematic destruction of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Their homes and property were confiscated; many Armenians were forced on a death march to a town in Syria. In total, between one and one-and-a-half million Armenians worldwide were systematically murdered during and just after World War I.

Subjects under the Ottoman Empire in Israel enjoyed years of freedom and prosperity, but unfortunately also suffered greatly. The end of the Ottoman Empire saw the true beginning of aliyah—Jews returning home to settle their land, the land of Israel.